The Warrior Queen of Jhansi


Portrait of a warrior queen.

(2019) Biographical Drama (Roadside AttractionsDevika Bhise, Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi, Ben Lamb, Nathaniel Parker, Jodhi May, Milind Gunaji, Arif Zakaria, Siyaa Patil, Omar Malik, Ajinkya Deo, Yatin Karyekar, Nagesh Bhonsle, Arush Nand, Naina Sareen, Auroshika Dey, Glenn Marks, Spandan Chaturvedi, Deepal Doshi, Mihai Iliescu, Francisco Raymond, Sonia Albizuri. Directed by Swati Bhise

 

India is not known for being a bastion of feminism. That’s what makes the importance of Lakshmibai (D. Bhise), the former Rani (Queen) of Jhansi, so intriguing.

The young Queen of the strategic city of Jhansi was widowed, her much older husband (Gunaji) passing shortly after their own son had died as an infant and in order to maintain the succession, they had adopted their nephew Damodhar (Nand). This was in 1857, mind you, and the rapacious East India Trading Company was the de facto ruling body of India, so decreed by Queen Victoria (May) and supported by her Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston (Jacobi). However, the company has turned into something toxic due to their overwhelming greed and overt racism, as embodied by their representative Sir Robert Hamilton (Parker) who snarls about the Indian people and yearns to butcher as many of them as possible. He may be the most unbelievable villain based on a historic person in cinematic history.

Following the death of the king, the East India Company turns its greedy sights onto Jhansi, ruling that Damodhar was not the legitimate heir because he was adopted; therefore, Jhansi would become company property. Lakshmibai was loathe to see that happen and went on a letter writing campaign to plead for help, up to and including to Queen Victoria herself. The only sympathetic ear she received was from Major Ellis (Lamb) who carried a bit of a torch for the Rani.

Pushed into a corner and wanting to preserve her city, Lakshmibai stood up to the British and Jhansi was put under siege for her trouble. Sir Hugh Rose (Everett), whose politics were somewhat convoluted, served as something of a mediator between the villainous Hamilton and the ore moderate Ellis. It took longer than expected but the superior firepower of the British eventually led to the fall of Jhansi – although the Rani managed to escape with much of her army.

Even though Jhansi had fallen, the Rani became a symbol throughout India, and as the Great Mutiny spread, she was regarded as a hero. The East India Trading Company couldn’t afford to let her live and so they brought all their resources to bear in the hopes of capturing or killing her.

The movie is gorgeous to look at with the colonial-era costumes, the sumptuous sets and the large-scale battle sequences. This was the debut feature for Swati Bhise and her inexperience shows; some of those set pieces are shot in a rather static fashion and there is very little dynamic camera movement.

This was actually a Hollywood production, not a Bollywood one (two other films on the Mutiny have already been released this year including one focusing on the Rani herself, both made in India) and it has both the advantages and pitfalls of Hollywood productions. The advantages are in the production values I mentioned earlier; the pitfalls in the way the writers played fast and loose with history. The quasi-romance between the Rani and Major Ellis was without basis; also, Khan (Malik), the Indian adviser to Queen Victoria, wasn’t born until five years after Lakshmibai passed away and wasn’t her adviser until the end of the 19th century.

There are a lot of clichés here as well as some clunky dialogue; the ending, narrated by the younger Bhise, is a bit precious and doesn’t serve the film well at all. Like most Hollywood productions, this isn’t meant to be a history lesson, although it does get some of the salient facts right. It is entertaining enough to recommend with Devika Bhise’s performance as the Rani being to a large measure responsible for that. She has the screen presence to pull off a role that is so iconic to the Indian people. It’s a shame she didn’t write a film that is worthy of her performance.

REASONS TO SEE: The production values are gorgeous. Devika Bhise does a fine job at making the Rani larger than life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit rote in places with a twee ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, instances of institutional racism and references to rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swati and Devika Bhise, in addition to directing and starring in the film (respectively), also co-wrote the film – and yes, they are related; they are mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews: Metacritic: 25//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Skyscraper

The Peanut Butter Falcon


Getting away from it all.

(2019) Dramedy (Roadside AttractionsShia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zach Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Raquel Aurora, Michael Berthold, Deja Dee, Lee Spencer, Rob Thomas, Mark Helms, Dylan Odom, Nick Morbitt, Noah Hein, Annie Jamison, Susan McPhail, Karen B. Greer. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

 

Some movies have their hearts in the right place. You can tell that there’s a sincere desire to shine a light on the marginalized, or tell a story close to the heart of those telling it. But lofty as those ambitions might be, they are not always realized on celluloid.

Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome who has been warehoused in a nursing home simply because the state has nowhere else to put him. Abandoned by his parents, he is left to rot amongst old folks waiting to die. Zak makes it from day to day because of a dream – to attend the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Church) and become a professional wrestler himself.

Although treated kindly by nurse’s aide Eleanor (Johnson), Zak knows that he has to get out of there or risk watching life pass him by with his dreams unfulfilled. With the help of his roommate, crusty old Carl (Dern, who has made a career of portraying cranky old men) and some strategically applied soap, Carl wriggles out of the barred window wearing only his tighty whities and escapes to find his dream.

Tyler (LaBeouf) wants little more than to be left alone and be able to support himself by crabbing on the boat left to him by his older brother (Bernthal) who passed away recently. However, Tyler is one of those guys who is his own worst enemies – drinking too much, drowning in anger issues and playing by his own rules when it suits him, even if his rules supersede the rules of society and decency. On the run with some angry Outer Banks crabbers out for his blood, he and Zak meet and despite Tyler’s initial reluctance, decide to travel together at least as far as Aden, NC (site of the wrestling school) while Tyler high-tails it to Jupiter, Florida afterwards. With Eleanor desperately chasing after Zak, Tyler and Zak find themselves sailing on a raft through the by-waters and estuaries of the Outer Banks in a desperate bid for the freedom that has eluded the both of them all their lives.

This is sort of like Huckleberry Finn by way of the Discovery Channel. The connection between Zak and Tyler is central to the film and to their credit, the two actors manage to carry it off most of the time. The movie never condescends towards Zak’s condition; it is treated matter-of-factly, as the color of his eyes and hairs would be. In a sense, the movie portrays people with Down’s syndrome about as realistically as any movie has ever portrayed them. Again, heart in the right place.

But this is the hard part. I feel like a complete heel for saying this because I think Gottsagen is doing his best, but he doesn’t deliver a compelling performance here. Sad to say, quite the opposite; whenever Zak speaks the film comes to a grinding halt. Lines are bellowed without conviction and you never get a sense of the depth of his obsession with becoming a wrestler. It comes across as an idea that wandered across his radar one day and is just sitting a spell before moving on when supplanted by another. I know it makes it sound like I’m saying that hanging out with people with Down’s Syndrome is annoying and that’s not at all what I’m meaning to convey, but hanging out with this guy with Down’s Syndrome is annoying. I do give the filmmakers kudos for casting someone with Down’s Syndrome to play someone with Down’s and I applaud the effort to bring a marginalized group to the screen in a sympathetic non-comic relief role, but Gottsagen didn’t quite deliver as I might have hoped.

That’s a shame because the cast is marvelous and they all do great work, even Johnson who is often maligned for her work in the 50 Shades of Grey films. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck and Johnson delivers on the sweet here, although her romance with Tyler comes off as unlikely at best. Still, the movie seems to have a theme of unlikely plot developments.

The cinematography by veteran Nigel Bluck makes nice use of the Georgia wetlands which substitute here for the Outer Banks – apparently the tax incentives are better in Georgia than they are in North Carolina. In any event, the film does its level best to be charming and often succeeds – but often shoots itself in the foot, seemingly taking on a philosophy of The Ends Justify the Means which is a bit disquieting. For those looking for a diversion from the summer blockbusters but can’t wait for the Fall’s Oscar contenders to arrive, this will do in a pinch.

REASONS TO SEE: Never too sweet, never too edgy. LaBeouf reminds us why he was considered one of Hollywood’s up-and-comers not too long ago.
REASONS TO AVOID: Whenever Gottsagen opens his mouth, the movie comes to a grinding halt. Seems to promote an “ends justifies the means” philosophy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Zak, Tyler and Eleanor jump off the oil rig by swinging on a rope, the actors did the swinging; no stunt doubles were used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Brian Banks

Trial by Fire


The despair of a father or the guilt of a murderer?

(2018) True Crime Drama (Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, Jade Pettyjohn, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gómez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pėre, Darren Pettie, Blair Bomar, Rhoda Griffis, Katie McClellan, Noah Lomax, Catherine Carlen, Michael H. Cole, Carlos Aviles, Elle Graham, McKinley Belcher III, Bryan Adrian, Mary Rachel Quinn. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

The death penalty remains a controversial subject, igniting passionate responses on both sides. Some consider it cruel and inhumane; others see it as righteous justice. Some say it is a deterrent to criminals, others point out that there’s no evidence that suggests that’s true. Some say that it at least keeps those who have committed heinous crime out of commission for good; others point to the possibilities that those who are innocent might be put to death wrongfully.

A young girl in the small Texas town of Corsicana was playing in her yard when she saw smoke billowing out of the house across the street. A shirtless man came out of the house, coughing and screaming that his kids were still in the house. The little girl’s mommy called 911 but it was all for naught – the three little girls inside the house were gone. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) would eventually be charged with their murder.

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Willingham was a notorious local troublemaker with a violent streak who had on several occasions physically abused his wife Stacy (Meade) who was away from the house when the fire occurred. Arson investigators for the county pronounced that it was absolutely a case of arson. Willingham was given a public defender who didn’t see much point in putting up any kind of defense. He never challenged the testimony of witnesses who changed their stories on the stand, nor checked on the veracity of a convicted criminal who testified that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in jail. Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite his protestations of innocence and his wife’s insistence that he would never hurt his own kids.

Willingham was put on Death Row where he was taunted as a baby killer and abused by guards and fellow inmates alike. His mandatory appeals are going nowhere and he can’t afford decent representation. Then, along comes playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a kindhearted do-gooder who reluctantly contacts him through a prison outreach program. Far from the thuggish brute she expected, he seems charming, gentlemanly and kind but absolutely unwavering in his cries that he’s an innocent man about to be executed for something he didn’t do.

Gilbert becomes drawn in to his story and starts to do research into his case and what she finds is shocking. The investigation was conducted in a shoddy and haphazard fashion with no other option other than Willingham ever considered for the crime. When she engages world famous arson investigator Dr. Hurst (Perry) who states unequivocally that that the initial investigation was botched and the culprit was likely a faulty space heater, Gilbert tries to find someone in authority to listen.

This case actually happened and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, more than twelve years after his daughters died in that terrible blaze. Zwick, an Oscar nominated director for Glory, puts together a searing indictment of our current justice system in which the law has become a commodity; only the very wealthy can afford good representation and that means often those who are poor are without any sort of recourse to get an adequate defense. It is the reason programs like The Innocence Project exist.

O’Connell, a fine actor who has been sort of just on the cusp of something brilliant, delivers it here with an absolutely stellar turn as Willingham. While I don’t think Zwick did O’Connell any favors by inserting imaginary one-sided conversations with his deceased oldest daughter, we get a sense of his despair, his outrage and yes his anger. The role likely won’t win him very many awards but might be the stepping stone to roles that will.

Zwick enlisted Alex Belcher to compose the music and he delivers with a haunting mood-inducing score that is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately, Zwick doesn’t give this film the kind of passion that he managed in Glory; I’ve read other critics describe his direction as workman-like and that is unfortunately right on the money. This is the kind of movie that should leave you with your blood boiling but oddly, it doesn’t and considering how tailor made it is to eliciting that kind of reaction, it’s almost criminal in and of itself.

Still, this is an important movie on the subject of our legal system, especially implying that then-Texas governor Rick Perry refused to even read Hurst’s report that should have exonerated Willingham, preferring that the execution go on as scheduled to preserve the reputation of the State as kick-ass against crime. This is one that got by them and quite frankly, some of those whose shameful behavior sent an innocent man to jail and execution should have had criminal charges filed against them.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Connell does a sterling job. The score is absolutely haunting. An important film on the issue of capital punishment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should leave you with your blood boiling but it doesn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann which opined that Texas had knowingly and willfully executed an innocent man.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Man Walking
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Violent Separation

Ben is Back


Julia Roberts shows quiet resolve in a powerful scene from “Ben is Back.”

(2018) Drama (LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions) Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Kristin Griffith, Jack Davidson, Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser, Cameron Roberts, Jeff Auer, Henry Stram, Bill Buell, Sandra Caldwell, Nathalie Carvalho. Directed by Peter Hedges

 

A mother’s love is a beautiful thing. It crosses all boundaries, it transcends time. A mother loves her child with a fierce devotion that is unmatched. It doesn’t matter whether her child is a saint or a sinner, a success or a failure – that mother loves that child unconditionally and without measure.

Holly (Roberts) returns home with her three young children on Christmas Eve to their comfortable home in a New England town to find an unexpected surprise – her eldest son Ben (Hedges) from a previous relationship. Ben has been in rehab for heroin addiction but he informs his over-the-moon mom that he’s doing so well that his sponsor has agreed to sign him out for a holiday pass to come home.

The youngest siblings Liam (Fraser) and Lacey (Fowler) are overjoyed to see their big brother but eldest daughter Ivy (Newton) is less enthusiastic. She remembers previous Christmas holidays ruined by Ben and worried sick, she calls stepfather Neal (Vance) to let him know what’s going on. Holly is a little more pragmatic though; while Ben plays outside with Liam and Lacey she hides all her jewelry and prescription medicine. Neal comes home and is absolutely pissed, demanding that Ben return to the treatment facility. Holly reluctantly prepares to drive him back but Neal, seeing Holly’s dejection, relents and gives Ben a day – a day in which Ben will be drug tested and watched like a hawk.

Needless to say things fall apart quickly. Former drug associates of Ben show up and vandalize the house, among other things. Holly is dragged into Ben’s world as he desperately tries to make things right. Over all the specter looms – can Ben stay clean or will he regress and use again and maybe spiral down to an early grave?

The movie is a harrowing and often heartbreaking look at how addiction affects not just the addict but all those around him or her – him in this case. At least, it does for the first part of the film; the second part becomes something more of a thriller as Holly pursues Ben into the underworld of her community, desperately trying to rescue him from himself. It is less effective than the first part of the film.

Despite the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the film, it still works mainly due to phenomenal performances by Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. For Roberts, this is one of the Oscar-winning actress’ finest performances of her career. It is telling that this has been such a phenomenal year for performances by women in the movies that Roberts won’t likely be part of the conversation for the short list. In most any other year, she would be. She brings a wide emotional range, from desperate to nurturing to angry to terrified, making us feel all of them without a false note in the bunch. At the end of the day this is a performance we can believe without hesitation. I can imagine any mom going through the gamut, wanting so much to find hope that her son will return to her yet knowing deep down that as an addict he will lie and cheat and steal and dash all her hopes more likely than not.

Hedges, himself nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, gives a terrific performance in the title role. Ben is charming and smart but he is also full of demons. You end  up rooting for him but deep down as the movie progresses you know he can’t be trusted. Hedges doesn’t make Ben too likable to be realistic but neither does he turn Ben into a monster. Ben’s just a kid who went down the wrong path and now doesn’t have an inkling of how to right himself.

This is a flawed film but nonetheless an effective one. It is raw and gritty in the places that it needs to be, underscoring it with the idyllic family life that Holly has without Ben. There are some really magnificent moments, such as when during a visit to a mall Holly confronts the doctor who was responsible for getting Ben hooked on opioids in the first place. There’s also a moment when during church services Ben realizes that the family of a girl he helped hook on heroin but who passed away is in the congregation with him.

Any good doctor will tell you that addiction doesn’t just change the life of the addict but of everyone who cares about them. That is the gist of the message here and it is prevented in a powerful way. The Christmas setting only serves to further make the message more poignant. This may be too much of a downer for some at this time of year but it is a movie that earns the praise it is getting.

REASONS TO GO: Heartrending dramatic moments starkly illustrate the effects of drug abuse on families. Roberts gives one of her finest performances ever. Hedges is nearly as brilliant as Roberts. The message is firmly underscored by the Christmas eve setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a bit fractured, devolving into a standard thriller during the final third. Some may find it too depressing for this time of year.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some brief violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lucas Hedges is the son of director Peter Hedges
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Lazar: Flying Saucers and Area 51

The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend

Juliet, Naked


Love triangles are inherently awkwward.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Jimmy O. Yang, Megan Dodds, Lily Newmark, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart, Lily Brazier, Johanna Thea, Georgina Bevan, Paul Blackwell, Janine Catterwall, Michael Chapman, Ko Iwagami, Karol Steele, Steve Barnett, Lee Byford, Florence Keith-Roach. Directed by Jesse Peretz

 

Sometimes to make a relationship work, we go along to get along. That’s all well and good but it can leave us in a rut that is anything but comfortable but we accept that it’s the way that things are and we just accept our situation. What do we do then when that which put us in that rut in the first place kicks us out violently?

Annie (Byrne) is in one of those ruts. She is certainly a go along to get along kind of gal; she curates a local museum in an English seaside town because her father left it to her to do. She lives with her boyfriend Duncan (O’Dowd) essentially because she’s used to him; they’ve been together for eight years in a kind of stagnant inertia-free relationship. He works as a professor of Film and TV studies at a local college when he’s not taking Annie for granted or ignoring her needs.

In fact it can be said that he has more passion for a forgotten indie rock musician named Tucker Crowe (Hawke) than he does for Annie. Crowe was a singer-songwriter of enormous potential having released a well-regarded album called Juliet chock full of loved-and-lost songs that bespoke a soul that had something to say when he exited a tour mid-set and dropped out of sight. The blog that Duncan runs endlessly discusses with other Crowe fans the minutiae of the few songs released to the public and reviews bootleg tapes of live Crowe performances from back in the day. There are some who believe that Crowe is in fact dead and gone

It turns out he’s alive and well. A demo tape of Crowe’s original album titled Juliet, Naked makes its way to Duncan but is intercepted by Annie who gives it a listen. She sees it as a naked cash grab by someone trying to live off of past glory and posts it in response to Duncan’s worshipful review of the piece. As it turns out the real Tucker Crowe reads the review and Annie’s stark response and he appreciates the honesty. It turns out he is coming to England to visit an estranged daughter, one of several progeny from a variety of post-rock star lovers, most of whom he hasn’t had much contact with. The only child of his that he spends any time with is Jackson (Robertson), possibly because Jackson’s mom (who has a new beau) allows Tucker to live rent-free in her garage.

It turns out that Crowe has struck up an e-mail correspondence with Annie and the two are developing a relationship. It also turns out that Duncan has messed up big time and Annie has asked him to leave. And it turns out that Duncan has difficulty believing that the other man in Annie’s life is the object of his obsession.

If you guessed that this sounds like something Nick Hornby would write, give yourself a pat on the back – it’s based on a novel by the prolific English writer. If the plot doesn’t give it away, then the terrific soundtrack that includes songs by Red House Painters and Hawke himself covering the Kinks criminally overlooked “Waterloo Sunset” should seal the deal.

Hawke has been on something of a roll for the past five years, turning in one outstanding performance after another. In fact, ever since Boyhood I can’t think of any movie he’s been in that he hasn’t been outstanding in. He is a fair enough singer as well, performing original songs written by luminaries like Connor Oberst for the soundtrack.

Byrne isn’t really well-suited to play dowdy but she does a credible job of it. However, the real revelation (sort of) is O’Dowd who essentially steals the movie. His hangdog look and oblivious demeanor is perfect for Duncan. O’Dowd strikes the right notes as the comic relief and has moments of actual pathos during the course of the movie which he proves quite adept at. Duncan isn’t the most likable of characters but O’Dowd imbues him with enough charm that we don’t end up loathing him, although we end up cringing at his actions.

The movie can be a bit talky in places and there are rom-com clichés in abundance. However, the movie finds humor in the ordinary (despite the extraordinary premise) and those moments really are the best ones in the film. It seems to me that rom-coms are making a bit of a comeback after a few off years following a period when we were inundated by cookie cutter romantic comedies that led to a bit of a pushback by the moviegoing public who demanded (and got) better romantic comedies. This isn’t a game changer by any standard but it is a solid and entertaining entry into the genre which in 2018 isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: O’Dowd steals the show. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Byrne was six months pregnant during shooting. Her condition was covered up using shots medium shots and close-ups and strategically placed props.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Song to Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Blood Fest

Finding Your Feet


Dancing never gets old.

(2017) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie, Joanna Lumley, David Hayman, Phoebe Nicholls, Josie Lawrence, John Sessions, Indra Ové, Richard Hope, Sian Thomas, Victoria Wicks, Marianne Oldham Jacqueline Ramnarine, Fran Targ, Paul Chan, Alex Blake, Frankie Oatway, Peter Challis, Patricia Winker, Karol Steele. Directed by Richard Loncraine

 

For some reason, the British seem to be very adept at putting out movies about people approaching their golden years with a certain joie de vivre. From Waking Ned Devine through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel through this Richard Loncraine-directed entry, they have taken a fairly formulaic plot and elevated it somewhat through the casting of some of the best actors of their generation and created a style of movies that is squarely aimed at the AARP set here but should have plenty of appeal to those with older parents or grandparents.

Lady Sandra Abbott (Staunton) is executing the party celebrating the knighting of her retiring husband (Sessions) with all the discipline of a five-star general. Things are going swimmingly until she discovers hubby canoodling in the cloak room with her best friend Pamela (Lawrence). Furious and humiliated, she moves out into the home of the only person who’ll have her; her big sister Bif (Imrie) who is about as opposite of the snooty, class-conscious Sandra as it’s possible to be. Bif is a free-spirited Bohemian who hasn’t strayed far from her hippie roots.

At first the two are eternally at odds and despite the good-hearted attempts of Bif to cheer her sister up, Sandra is a lot more wounded than she’s willing to admit. Finally Bif manages to convince her to attend the dance class she attends at the local community center. There she meets Jackie (Lumley), the lone patrician in the group; working class Ted (Hayman) and more to the point, Charlie (Spall) who is a good friend and confidante of Bif and who is a bit of a handyman for her. Naturally, Sandra despises him.

Of course you can guess where the film is going to go from there and – spoiler alert – it does just that. All the elements are there; mortality, Alzheimer’s, late life romance and a big competition in which the elderly will be taking on much younger groups. At times the movie seems to make a joke out of Bif’s sexual activity – as if sex started with the young – but to Loncraine’s credit he seems to prefer giving the seniors a sense of normalcy which is of course reality – the elderly do have sex from time to time, they talk about it in bawdy terms from time to time, they do physical activities and they are generally aware of current trends. It feels like moviegoers have a tendency to prefer our retirees to be un-hip and sedentary. That’s also quite far from reality; there are lots of those who are 20 years my senior who are in far better shape than I am and who know more about rap and modern pop culture than I do.

This is a movie that makes a lot of hay from the charm of the leads. Spall often plays venal roles but given a genuinely nice guy part to play he fills the screen with a brilliant smile and authentic warmth. You end up rooting for Charlie and late in the movie when he makes a critical relationship error, you can’t help but feel for the guy. There’s a scene that takes place shortly after a visit to a loved one in a nursing home in which he sits in his car and slowly his demeanor is stripped away and his sorrow and grief come to the fore. It’s the kind of scene in other hands would feel maudlin and manipulative but instead you find yourself misty-eyed as well.

I have to admit that every time I see Staunton onscreen I think “Dolores Umbridge” and that’s a tribute to her very underrated performance in that role which many know her best at, but I suspect many Americans would be astonished to discover that she has a long and honored career in musical theater. When she gets to dance she shows the kind of grace and style that comes from being a musical theater star and if the movie makes a tactical mistake it’s that they didn’t give her more opportunities to dance. Imrie similarly is pixie-ish and eye-twinkling and is a joy in this role. Is it any wonder that they were all snatched up by the Harry Potter franchise?

Da Queen is an absolute sucker for this kind of movie and it hit all her feels in spades. She loves a good cry during the course of a movie and even more she loves to feel good leaving the theater and she got both of those check marked by this film. I’ll be really honest with you; I didn’t have very high expectations for this movie and I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, this is for sure aimed at an older crowd but don’t let that stop you from seeing a movie that will make you feel good after seeing it. Goodness knows that we could all use all the good feelings we can get.

REASONS TO GO: Spall, Staunton and Imrie all turn on the charm. The film is genuinely heartwarming without being too manipulative.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is somewhat predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief drug use, sexually suggestive material and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spall and Imrie played husband and wife in The Love Punch.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfinished Song
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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